January in the Northern Hemisphere is deep in Midwinter. After the excitements of Christmas and the New Year, we may be fooled into thinking January is all about new starts, but turning to nature and the earth to guide us, we see that this really is a time of hibernation, resting and planning before regeneration starts to show in the Spring. This is where the indigenous plantlife around us echos our fundamental needs as humans.
Despite being a time for hibernation, there are still some medicinal plants that can be found and foraged this month if you know where to look. Roots and berries are very much the theme here.
Foraging is an ancient way to connect with how our ancestors lived, the plants themselves and their healing, as well as the world around us, but it is best to do so in a safe and ethical way so please don’t set off before you’ve read and digested our article ‘A Guide to Safe and Sustainable Foraging’, also remembering to pick ‘above dog height’!
With that in mind, medical herbalist Kathie Bishop shares some of her favourite medicinal plants to harvest in the January wilds of the UK.
Dandelion root (Taraxacum officinalis radix)
With winter being the time for rest and hibernation, the majority of plants don’t have impressive aerial parts or flowers. Instead, most of their vital force is down into the earth, in their roots. In herbal medicine there are numerous plants for which roots hold specific medical value. Dandelion root is one of these.
Although much bemoaned by gardeners who may not realise the true value growing at their feet, the whole of the Dandelion plant is useful medicine. The roots are of particular use as a restorative hepatic herb and are often used in prescriptions for those with liver conditions(1). Herbs which have particular affinity with the liver tend to be bitter to the taste, milky or yellow in colour, and have a cooling sensation when taken internally. That cooling sensation, vitalistically speaking, has a ‘downwards’ action in the body.
Due to this vitalistic effect, Dandelion root can be included in mixes where digestion is sluggish or there is constipation, both because of its restorative action on the liver and because it stimulates bile flow (1). It should be avoided in cases of jaundice or blocked biliary ducts.
The root, as many roots do, also contains mucilage and the prebiotic, inulin, which will also contribute to the easing of constipation and feeding the ‘good’ gut bacteria (1).
The fresh milky sap of the root is traditionally used in curing warts and needs to be applied often (1).
The root can be dug up, thoroughly washed and roasted to make a coffee-replacement decoction, or dried and used to make a tincture.
Yellow dock root (Rumex crispus radix)
Similar to dandelion root, January is the perfect time to harvest the roots of the Yellow Dock, before it flowers.
Yellow Dock commonly grows worldwide and is native to the UK. It is easily told apart from other docks by its narrow leaves that have crimped edges and the root, when cut has a yellow core (1).
Again, similar to Dandelion, Yellow Dock root is a bitter and laxative herb, making it cooling with a downwards action, but it is also a cleansing hepatic herb. This makes it helpful for sluggish digestion, jaundice, wind, bloating and what is traditionally known as liverishness, which is a mix of fatigue, nausea, headache, itchy skin (1).
However, it is also traditionally known as alterative or blood cleansing properties which make it excellent for inclusion in mixes for skin conditions such as eczema, hives, psoriasis and any hot skin rashes (1).
Once dug up and washed it can be used internally as tincture or a decoction (taking 2-3 cups daily) or can be used to make a compress or cream for itchy skin.
Hawthorn berries (Crataegus spp. fruc.)
If you’re very lucky you will find some hawthorn trees locally still bearing berries that haven’t been eaten by birds or harvested yet!
Hawthorn, while it can grow into small trees, is more commonly found as shrubs in hedgerows up and down the land. It has many folk names such as May Tree, The May, Whitethorn and Quickthorn.
Hawthorn belongs to the rose family, which is considered to be a widely ‘safe’ family of plants to take (apple and raspberry are also in the rose family), and full of toning tannins.
While the tree doesn’t fruit in January, berries are likely to still be present and one half of the medicine chest that this wonderful tree provides (the other being the flowers and can be found in late April to early May), making it a real delight to find.
When speaking about the Latin binomial name for Hawthorn – Crataegus spp. – we use the term spp. to specify more than one species growing in the UK, and that those can be used medicinally interchangeably as their medicinal actions are so incredibly similar. The two most common types of Hawthorn growing in the UK are Crataegus monogyna and Crataegus laevigata.
Known as an amphoteric for the cardiovascular system, Hawthorn berries are primarily a connective tissue tonic, which helps to build collagen and elastin, having an affinity for the blood vessels. Full of deep red pigmented tannins known as proanthocyanins, and cyanogenic glycosides, it is a heart and circulatory restorative, improving arterial wall tone and blood flow to the heart. It is used by herbalists in cases where treatment of one of a number of cardiovascular disorders and diseases are appropriate. However, it should not be used in this way without full monitoring by a practitioner (2).
Energetically, Hawthorn berries can be used to help those who feel disheartened or gloomy, as they support the heart and therefore the vital spirit (2).
If you do find hawthorn berries still attached to the tree, harvest mindfully and ethically, ensuring that the full berry is picked and any stalk is discarded.
Rosehip (Rosa canina)
Rosehips are the fruit of the dog rose plant and like the Hawthorn (same family), it fruits in Autumn time. However, it’s likely you’ll still be able to find bushes that have the hips on them and no leaves.
Rosehips are full of vitamin C and before the discovery of that vitamin, Rosehip tea was drunk to stave off the common cold and for inflamed gums – it’s wonderful when science backs up traditional use!
Beware, as they’re full of tiny hairs which can catch in the throat if not prepared properly! These were traditionally used to make itching powder. This is something to be aware of when processing your hips ready for use!
Being part of the rose family, Rosehips are full of tannins, tasting somewhat tart and have a tonifying action – in this case, exerting a weak toning action on the bladder for incontinence (1).
Due to its vitamin C content its really helpful for colds, but also contains vitamins A, B and E as well as collagen and essential fatty acids (2). This makes the pressed oil great for skin care and to prevent scaring. The powder of Rosehip seeds and shells is helpful in alleviating the pain and inflammation associated with osteo-arthritis (3).
If you do find Rosehips still attached to the bush, again harvest mindfully and ethically, ensuring that the full hip is picked and any stem is discarded.
The easiest way to work with these is, once picked, dry them whole to use for tea. Infusion for tea should be fine here. Doing them whole in this way bypasses the worry of the itchy hairs inside the hips.
They are wonderful in combination with hibiscus and can be drunk freely during the winter months.
Sea buckthorn berry (Hippophae rhamnoides fruc.)
Native to the sand dunes along the east coast of England and also the cold temperate region of Asia, the deciduous shrub Sea-buckthorn tends to fruit in the Autumn, but the berries are still available on the bush come January, so if you are in that part of the country this could be a good one for you to go out and spot.
It forms large, spiny, dense thickets that can grow up to 4m high with grey-green leaves, tiny green flowers and large bright orange berries.
Its Latin binomial name refers to the fact that the ancient Greeks may have fed its leaves to their horses to ensure they had shiny coats and this gives us some indications as to the actions it has in the human body.
On pressing, the berries yield juice and and oil, the latter of which is rich in vitamin C and fatty acids, in particular Omega 7 (but also 3, 6 and 9). Omega 7 is a key component of human mucosal cells and may stimulate skin regeneration, helping wounds heal more quickly. I would recommend taking a teaspoon (or 3g of capsules) a day to help improve vaginal mucosa in those suffering with chronic vaginal conditions (4).
- Hedley C, Shaw N. Plant Medicine: A collection of the teachings of herbalists Christopher Hedley & Non Shaw. Ed by Waddell G. 1st ed. Aeon; 2023
- Bartram T. Bartram’s Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine. Constable and Robinson; 1998
- Kristian Marstrand & Joan Campbell-Tofte (2016) The role of rose hip (Rosa canina L) powder in alleviating arthritis pain and inflammation – part II animal and human studies, Botanics: Targets and Therapy, 6:, 59-73, DOI: 10.2147/BTAT.S55573
- Bishop, K. It’s Your Power Portal: Take Control of Your Vaginal Health with Herbal and Holistic Care. 1st ed. Aeon Books; 2022